• Paul Zakkour

CCUS Sentiments 2018: A reflection on the GHGT-14 conference


Last week I had the pleasure of attending the GHGT-14 conference held in Melbourne, Australia, and catching up with CCS friends old and new.

Whilst pondering expectations for the event, I decided to inaugurate my own “CCUS Sentiments Survey 2018”; something of an ice-breaker and a bit of fun rather than anything too serious. The question was simple: how many large-scale CC[U]S projects do you think there will be globally in 2030? Easy enough to provoke a bit of debate; useful enough to get a feel for the direction of travel. But mostly it was meant to be fun.

The CCUS crowd being a smart bunch of course came back with a few qualifiers:

- Define large scale?

- Which sectors?

- What’s the baseline?

- Do you mean integrated projects?

- Is EOR included?

The bar was set at 0.5 MtCO2/yr (Chris Consoli validated this, and even though he’d had a drink, his reasoning seemed sound), the baseline was set to 19 today (18 LSIPs + Gorgon) and it was agnostic about source and sector. It also assumed that all current projects make it through to then (which got me wondering about how much gas is left in Sleipner?) A couple of seasoned delegates asked whether I was counting EOR, which I was, but they decided to exclude it from their answer.

The midpoint expectation for global CCUS deployment in 2030 came in at 35 projects, meaning 16 new ones in the next 12 years (range: -13 to +981; see below). This would give us total annual geosequestration in 2030 of less than 100 MtCO2. Obviously this is nowhere near IPCC and IEA estimates for 2-degrees, let alone 1.5. Although it was meant to be fun, it’s an alarming signal from a partisan crowd. So what can we make of this sentiment? Did I ask the wrong people? Did I ask the wrong question? Did I write down the numbers wrong? Did I call at a bad time? Maybe - I suppose we’ll never know. But instinct tells me that I could have asked many more and still ended up with a similar spread.

So is this right? Is CCS going to spend another decade limping along, failing to live up to expectations and needs of the climate? The “sentiments survey” seems to suggest as much.

Looking back on the closing session of the conference, there was an interesting debate about CCS narratives. The themes of “confidence” and “trust” were discussed at length, largely through a semantics lens. Could more talk improve confidence in CCS or trust in the fossil fuel industry? It seems unlikely. That thought experiment already played out a decade or so ago with patchy results. Actions rather than words are surely the order of the day. It therefore seems more appropriate at this juncture to ask: who will act to change the sentiment and narrative? Do we need Matthias Raab’s ‘State of Fear’ to stimulate greater action? Hopefully not. Surely even the most ardent climate skeptic must have noticed some of the unusual weather patterns of the past few years and wondered, even if only for a split second, whether we are all proverbial frogs in a pot.

The challenge seems too complex and diverse for 194 governments to solve together, and too much for any single one to do alone. Carbon pricing in isolation will probably not be sufficient to incentivise major CCS investment over the next 10 years. Specific government CCS funding passed its high-water mark in 2009/10 and looks unlikely to come back again soon. Today the US’s (mainly) got EOR, Europe’s got cold feet, Canada’s got buyer’s remorse, and Australia’s Liberals missed the memo on coal phase-out. The rest of the world has either no interest, no storage, or is waiting for the Paris Agreement to deliver something. On the other side of the table, the fossil fuel industry also seems reluctant to move unilaterally. It’s consistently said that it has the skills and know-how to deliver the technology, but requires the right enabling environment. That has proved to be something of an ethereal or fluid concept.

Looking beyond the next few years, the Paris Agreement commits all Parties to a global goal of balancing anthropogenic emissions and removals by sinks by mid-century, in essence a net zero emissions world after 2050. A simple but exceedingly ambitious goal that implies two possible outcomes: widespread phase-out of fossil fuels or huge increases in the use of carbon sequestration technologies. A third way sees us boiling in the pot all the while hoping that we can adapt to the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Given the existential threat this poses to fossil fuels (or to civilisation as we know it; a stark choice), there seems to be only one rational conclusion to draw at this point: collective action by industry today is crucial to sustaining the near-term relevance of CCS in the post-Paris world. A clear signal could be sent to policy-makers and the public at large: we are ready to put CCS at the core of our contributions to a net zero emissions future. This would surely establish a stronger platform upon which to engage governments in a dialogue about creating systematic, stable and long-term policy support mechanisms for CCS. But it needs to move soon. Further procrastination is only likely to feed a negative spiral of diminishing confidence in the technology, heightened distrust in its proponents, and further distancing by governments and society. It’s an open question as to how long such a cycle could credibly run given the rate at which global energy systems are transitioning.

Maybe I am reading too much into such a simple Q&A. But I can’t help thinking that most delegates at GHGT-14 are quietly hoping that by the time 2030 rolls around, GHGT-20 won’t prove to be CCS’s valedictory tour.

With thanks to everyone who participated in the survey for providing me with their open and honest responses as well as wider thoughts on the future pathways for CCS development.

CCUS Sentiments Survey Results – Large Scale Projects in 2030

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